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An interesting article out of Pittsburgh on Home Field Advantage
An interesting article out of Pittsburgh on Home Field Advantage
I thought some of you guys might enjoy this article:
A playoff win at home isn't as easy as it used to be
Friday, January 14, 2005
By Chico Harlan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
The Steelers take their first step into the playoffs tomorrow against the New York Jets at Heinz Field, enjoying the coveted 'home field advantage' of football lore and legend. And the roaring support of their hometown fans. Click photo for larger image.
Long ago, three words fused into one phrase -- Home. Field. Advantage. -- and when somebody dropped that phrase into the cauldron of sports debate, it became a term that warped under the pressure of myth and fact. It grew from a statistical trend into a built-in sporting phenomenon. It developed such a roll-off-the-tongue acceptance, who even bothered to notice that home teams in the NFL playoffs have lost six of the past 14 league championship games?
Home-field advantage became a duty. Strive for it. Earn it. Protect it.
"From the time you start with football," Steelers cornerback Chad Scott said, "everybody talks about winning at home. That's part of the football mentality."
At its foundation, home-field advantage is instinctive, a primal desire to protect one's surroundings. For athletes, the desire rings so true that the phrase has rearranged itself into a pop-culture omnipresence. In a commercial for sporting gear company Under Armour, a football player screams, with animalistic urgency, "We must protect this house!" A recent VISA television ad features several New England Patriots barking about their desire to prevent opponents from winning at home -- where, incidentally, the Patriots have won 19 consecutive games.
To heck with the facts and myths of home-field advantage -- we'll get to that later. Home field, more than anything, is perpetuated by pride. Right now, the Steelers find themselves on a walkway to the Super Bowl. They need only two victories, both of which would come at Heinz Field, to get there. "And when you come to Heinz Field," running back Jerome Bettis said, "you're not going to leave with a win."
As the AFC's No. 1 seed, the Steelers play host to the New York Jets tomorrow at Heinz Field, a stadium where they have yet to lose this season. If they win tomorrow they'll be back at Heinz next weekend.
But no guarantees, remember. For all one can say to evidence the truth of home-field advantage -- one example: home playoff teams, since 1970, have won 70 percent of their games -- the Steelers have done much in the past decade to raise doubts. On Jan. 15, 1995, the Steelers lost at Three Rivers Stadium in the AFC championship to the underdog Chargers. Three years later, they lost in similar fashion to the Denver Broncos. By the time New England shocked the Steelers at Heinz Field in January 2002, such losses had become a trend; a painful, embarrassing trend.
Advantage or not, failing to protect one's home field creates discord in the whole football cosmos. Strive, earn, protect ... strive, earn, protect -- that's what players have trained themselves to expect.
"Nah, man," Scott said, when asked about Steelers' playoff struggles at home.
Interview over. He walked away, unwilling to talk.
THE HOME TEAM, in Vegas, generally receives a three-point edge in the point spread. If, for instance, the Steelers and Patriots were judged as equals when playing at a neutral site, the Steelers would be favored by three points in a game played at Heinz Field; New England would be favored by three in a game played at Gillette Stadium. By a prognosticator's eye, a home stadium is good for a field goal.
But more accurately, home field, sandwiched between the gap of myth and fact, defies any general rule. By some accounts, home-field advantage is the push an NFL team needs to reach the Super Bowl. "It was a big advantage for us," said Franco Harris, a Steeler with four championship rings. "In playoff games, there's an energy and emotion in the stands that can play a lot into what happens on the field."
By other accounts, home field is an element so often assumed to be advantageous, people forget about the pitfalls. Said former Steelers coach Chuck Noll: "There are some downsides to being at home, too -- people asking you for tickets, family concerns. A lot of outside distractions."
Fact is, home teams win NFL playoff games at a remarkably stable rate. In each of the past four decades, home teams have won between 67 and 73 percent of their games. Despite that, many perceive that the advantage of home field has dissipated in the past decade. New stadiums, with their sterile ambience, tend to suffocate the loudest fans. Player movement through free agency melts away each team's identity. And most important, perhaps, a few statistical trends are starting to indicate that playing at home means less than ever.
Since the NFL created its current, 12-team playoff format in 1990, only half of all No. 1 seeds (14 of 28) have advanced to the Super Bowl. Teams playing at home lost just four conference championships in the entire 1980s; home teams have lost four times in four years since 2000. Even last week, three of four road teams won their wild-card playoff games.
"I would not say the league is inclined to be a place where home field doesn't mean anything," Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "The league has always understood that there should be a home-field advantage, but it's just a fact of life now that there is more parity than ever."
Even so, playing at home comes packaged with natural benefits. The top two playoff seeds in each conference receive an extra off week, perfect for healing injured players. Home teams depend on crowd noise to stunt opposing offenses. Teams spend their whole season, as the Steelers did in 2004, aiming for those rewards.
Then, once you earn all that, you just hope it makes a difference.
THE FIELD is a variable, a huge variable. Arrowhead in Kansas City? Ear-splitting. Any dome? Tends to be tough. Arizona? Most parking lots are louder.
When the Steelers opened Heinz Field in 2001, the team had concerns about losing a slice of its home-field advantage, and for good reason. Three Rivers Stadium, where Pittsburgh played from 1970-2000, had established itself as one of the loudest -- and most aesthetically unwelcoming -- venues in the NFL. Four championship teams played there. A legion of towel-waving fans hovered directly above the action. The unmistakable nexus of concrete and craziness, Three Rivers was just like Arrowhead -- ear-splitting.
Playoff games at Three Rivers produced such electricity, players are goose-pimpled simply by their memory. "I mean, the building actually shook," Bettis said.
"Three Rivers was special," said Darren Perry, who played for the Steelers from 1992-98 and now serves as the defensive backs coach. "It had a little mystique to it, and for some reason, it got noisier there. You can see the difference at Heinz Field. A lot of the older guys will say the same thing; they'll come to Heinz Field and say it's not nearly as loud. You know, it's the stadium of the new millennium -- a little corporate. Three Rivers was so old and beat up, bricks were falling down ..."
Perry chuckled at the thought. "So yeah," he said. "It was definitely louder."
The Steelers still feed off an intensely loyal and loud fan base, but several factors have diminished the noise at their new stadium. The Steelers, Rooney admits, likely has a fan base older than the usual NFL team. Moreover, Heinz Field, with 127 luxury boxes and 6,600 club seats, has more amenities than Three Rivers. That's good if you want to create fan comfort, bad if you want to stimulate fan craziness.
This season, the Steelers went 8-0 at home and inspired some of the loudest crowds at Heinz Field. After several games, opposing team officials approached Rooney and commented that Heinz had become an extremely challenging place to play.
What prevents Heinz Field from equaling the decibel level of Three Rivers, perhaps, is purely architectural. With the south end of the stadium open to the downtown skyline, noise can escape.
"There's some question about whether you lose crowd noise by doing that," said Dennis Wellner, a founding partner of HOK Sport and the principal architect involved in the Heinz Field project. "But you've got other things in that stadium" -- Wellner referenced Heinz Field's spiral rampways and under-the-scoreboard plaza -- "that play to the atmosphere. There, the visiting team can look up at the city they're playing in and see very evidently that it's not their home. It's kind of subjective, but to me, that adds to the intimidation.
"Even though sound is one issue, it didn't fit at the top of the list. If it did, maybe we'd just go on building stadiums with seats all around like Three Rivers."
THE ADVANTAGE of everything the Steelers now have -- the swagger inherent with a 15-1 record, the AFC's No. 1 seed, a bye week for rest -- might be particularly pronounced this season.
"Well this is just a huge advantage for them," said Howie Long, a Fox football analyst and NFL Hall of Fame defensive lineman. As Long, in Pittsburgh last week, paced the sideline during a recent Steelers practice, he started talking teams and matchups and scenarios ... a giant what-if game. And suddenly, home-field advantage, no matter what it has meant in the past for the Steelers, seemed like a harbinger of good things.
"For the Steelers to be here rather than having to go to a place like, say, Indianapolis -- that's huge," Long continued. "First of all, Indianapolis is a brutal place to play, and that team is built for turf. So I think this is a tremendous edge. And you don't want to be traveling to New England. Remember, New England hasn't lost a home game in two years.
"So let's say New England ends up here [in the AFC championship]. New England already came up here earlier this year and got hammered. Philadelphia came in here and got hammered. That's pretty impressive. The Steelers have turned Heinz Field into an extremely tough place to win."
But the Steelers, too, are a team with a recent history of playoff failure, and that's where the facts and the myths run together. Why have the Steelers lost three AFC championships at home in the last decade? Bad luck? A statistical anomaly? Or is there a chance, even a remote one, that the reassurance of those home games allowed the Steelers a comfort level no football team should want?
The past Steelers playoff failures create an interesting collision of expectation against actuality. Given the choice, any NFL player or coach will opt for a home game, confident that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. But veteran Steelers -- those who have been around for one or more of the AFC championship losses -- know the truth: If home playoff games produce an appreciable edge, they can also lead to a painful -- and yes, embarrassing -- tumble.
"We worked very hard to obtain this," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said, "so it's good to be playing this first game at home ... "And hopefully," he added with caution, "the next game at home as well."
Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts
And life itself, rushing over me
Life itself, the wind in black elms,
Life itself in your heart and in your eyes, I can't make it without you